We are excited to share the next installment of our 2020 Student Blog Series! The student blog series highlights original pieces authored by first-year law students at Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Read on for Alexandra Santulli’s contribution to the Student Blog Series.
In the digital age, communication amongst people from all over the world has become increasingly accessible. With the rise of technological devices and social media platforms, these interactions are rapid and allow anyone to create an online presence. While technology and social media have fostered connectivity between friends and family and supported global enterprise, they have also allowed dangerous perpetrators to gain widespread influence.
In the last decade, “the sex industry has moved from the streets to online recruiting.” According to the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative (NOVA-HTI), nearly 70% of human trafficking now takes place online. As seen in most trafficking cases, predators prey on vulnerable victims using force, fraud, and coercion to trap victims in the horrific conditions of the commercial sex trade. However, given the role of technology, traffickers can now do all of this at the “click” of a button. A trafficker can be anyone – a classmate, employer, family friend, acquaintance, or a random stranger online. But the true identities of these traffickers are easily hidden. Many traffickers often pretend to be someone they are not (typically a fellow teenager) by creating fake accounts and IP addresses through social media platforms such as MySpace, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The trafficker then will use his fake social media profile to “friend request” other children and teens. By posing as someone else, especially someone close to the victim’s age, traffickers are able to quickly gain the trust of their victims.
Frequently, traffickers will lure their targets by establishing an online relationship with them, promising gifts, money, jobs, or some prospect for a better life. Traffickers then take advantage of the trust they have gained and in order to meet with the victim in person. Teenagers and young adults who appear to be bullied, emotionally isolated, or come from homes without traditional in-tact families are commonly targeted and are frequently the most drawn to the false sense of hope traffickers provide. Once a trafficker is able to convince his victim that he will protect and care for her, she often willingly follows the instructions of the perpetrator and, eventually, finds herself unable to escape the violence, torture, and abuse of the sex trade.
The Internet has enabled sex trafficking to become the “fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world,” worth 99 billion dollars from sexual exploitation alone. Unfortunately, despite their online footprint, detecting online traffickers can be rather difficult. Like any victim of sexual exploitation, innocent individuals who have been recruited through online platforms often do not come forward to police or authorities. Many are fearful that they will be punished by law enforcement or retaliated against by their traffickers. Furthermore, many lack education and awareness of their rights, do not have documentation, or are unsure where to get help. While law enforcement officials have conducted numerous online investigations in attempting to catch traffickers, the sheer volume of postings and communications, coupled with complex privacy settings, fake addresses, and jurisdictional laws, have made it extremely challenging to locate perpetrators and victims.
To assist in identifying and prosecuting these heinous acts, Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) in May 2015. This bill strengthened the United States’ response to online sex trafficking, most notably, by adding “advertises” to the list of “acts” that count as sex trafficking. It also significantly improved the quality and quantity of resources for victims and partnered with survivors of human trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation to continuously enhance their services.
However, the real legislative change for online sex trafficking, including facilitation of sex trafficking through social media, came with Congress’ passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) package in 2018. SESTA-FOSTA holds websites which facilitate sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation liable for acts that promote, facilitate, and turn a blind eye to sex trafficking online. These laws also include in their reach social media platforms, such as Instagram and Facebook, which often contribute to sex trafficking by allowing traffickers to use their platforms for recruitment, grooming, and advertising. Before the issuance of SESTA-FOSTA, many webpages and social media sites ignored the issue of sex trafficking by failing to warn about dangerous perpetrators and knowingly benefitting financially from the acts of traffickers. By holding these sites responsible, SESTA-FOSTA importantly punishes large corporations and websites that allow this type of trafficking to persist, and ensures that moving forward, websites are policing and removing perpetrators that cause harm through media platforms.
Although significant headway has been made in combating this crisis, the sex trade still exists and its influence remains far-reaching due to the rapid spread of Internet communication. For this reason, the CSE Institute, and other organizations globally work to educate and provide technical assistance that will support the mission of countering the impact of commercial sexual exploitation.
Alexandra Santulli is a first-year student at the Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law. Alexandra is originally from Washington Township, New Jersey, however has spent the last four years at Fairfield University in Connecticut where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Accounting and Economics. Upon graduation in 2022, Alexandra hopes to use her legal knowledge to help counter injustices and empower others to find their voice.